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5 sneaky-good buddies trip destinations, according to one longtime traveler

November 08, 2023
Myrtle Beach

The 18th hole at Caledonia Golf and Fish Club, a former member of our America's 100 Greatest Public rankings, where incoming groups are known to be heckled by groups hanging out at the patio.

JD Cuban/Golf Digest

This summer will mark the 24th time I’ve played in the HGGA Championship, AKA my annual buddies trip. It’s a yearly tradition that dates back to my freshman year in college (yep, I’m that old) and has provided me with countless amazing memories—especially those five instances I’ve been fortunate enough to slip on our coveted green jacket, given to the winner of our weeklong competition.

That’s nearly a quarter century of these trips, which have taught me a lot about friendship and different destinations. To be clear, the company you keep is the most important aspect of these journeys, but I’d be lying if I said the venue doesn’t matter. And my group has been lucky enough to play and stay at some of the best golf resorts in the country from Pinehurst to Kiawah to my personal favorite, Sand Valley. Although, admittedly, I’ve still never been to Bandon Dunes. I know, I know, poor me.

Part of the reason for that is that our mostly New York-based group usually keeps things close to the east coast. When the existence of spouses and kids—things that weren’t even on my radar when I started going but were for our older members—dictate a five-day, four-night getaway, it’s tough to burn a lot of that time traveling. And we often like to alternate “big-ticket” destinations with places steeped in value, especially if we can get there by driving. To that end, I’ve made a list of five sneaky-good spots well worth visiting. Hopefully, we get (back) to all of these multiple times in the next quarter century.

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C.

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The 18th green at True Blue.

OK, so this is basically Myrtle Beach, but you can stay in this area away from MB’s hustle and bustle (45 minutes south of Myrtle’s airport) and be completely satisfied. Not only have multiple HGGA Championships been held here, but this was even the site of my bachelor party. So, yes, there is some nightlife—and even a Hibachi steakhouse.

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The anchors to this trip, however, are two Mike Strantz gems in Caledonia and True Blue (above), which are located across the street from each other. Throw in the Jack Nicklaus design Pawleys Plantation, which was recently renovated, and you’ve got a great Big Three to base a trip around.

Caledonia Golf & Fish Club
Public
Caledonia Golf & Fish Club
Pawleys Island, SC
4.1
115 Panelists
Caledonia was Strantz’s first solo design in 1994, and his creativity shines on this golf-only, oak-dotted, sand-dune parcel abutting the marshes and rice paddies of Pawley’s Island. The design is ordered and composed, twisting low through the heavy tree canopy while setting up classic hole strategies into angled greens. There are touches of Pete Dye and just enough quirk to suggest something more intense and experimental brewing under the surface. Subdued and rhythmic, Caledonia is currently ranked 85th on Golf Digest's latest 100 Greatest Public ranking (it’s been as high as 66th). Two musts: The chowder at the turn, and a drink on the porch behind the 18th hole.
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True Blue Golf Club
Public
True Blue Golf Club
Pawleys Island, SC
4.1
92 Panelists
Strantz returned to Pawley’s Island just a few years after Caledonia opened, nearly to the exact same place, in fact. True Blue is Caledonia’s sister course, located on an inland property that sits just across the street, though sequestered from any marsh views. But what it lacks in scenery it makes up for in volume. Everything at True Blue is bigger and more heroic. Greens erupt out of sand barrens, fairways are 60 to 90 yards wide and holes take on the form of ambling caterpillars. The abrupt, hi-contrast shaping, made possible by the sandy terrain, is a not so subtle nod in the direction of Pine Valley.
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Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club
Public
Pawleys Plantation Golf & Country Club
Pawleys Island, SC
4.1
31 Panelists
This Jack Nicklaus design would contend not only for the best in Myrtle Beach but the best public courses in South Carolina. Pawleys Plantation lies among the natural saltwater marshes and boasts some strong par 3s. According to Nicklaus, each hole has a distinct intended strategy shaped by hazards, trees, bunkers, and even a double green shared by two holes.
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VERONA, N.Y.

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The finishing par 5 at Atunyote.

LC Lambrecht

Speaking of a great big three, Turning Stone Resort Casino also features three fantastic tracks (plus a nice par-3 course), including two, Shenandoah and Kaluyat, which you can walk to from your hotel room. But the gem is Atunyote, which is located a 10-minute shuttle away and hosted the PGA Tour from 2006-2010. Chris DiMarco once even called it the best-conditioned course on tour! Also, if you live in the New York City area, it doesn’t get any easier than a 4-hour car ride. Or you can fly into the Syracuse Airport, which is 30 minutes away. And once you’re there, you never have to leave the property with a wide-array of restaurants, activities (even an indoor driving range) and, yes, the casino, to visit at night. You just might give back all the money you saved by driving there.

Turning Stone Resort Casino: Atunyote
Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar each captured PGA Tour titles at Turning Stone’s Atunyote course when it hosted a tour event from 2006-2010. Turning Stone’s signature layout—one of three 18-hole courses at the resort—was previously ranked for four years on our 100 Greatest Public list, reaching as high as No. 55 in 2013-2014, and returns now after a nine-year absence. The Tom Fazio parkland design plays through woodlands and around pristine ponds that create a tranquil setting.
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Turning Stone Resort (Kaluhyat)
3.2
37 Panelists
Just like Turning Stone’s Atunyote course, the Kaluhyat layout was also previously ranked for four years on our 100 Greatest Public list, climbing as high as No. 71 in 2013-2014. Unlike the relatively flat Atunyote track, the Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed Kaluhyat course has plenty of elevation changes, including some up to 50 feet. The elevation changes provide many scenic vistas of the surrounding upstate terrain.
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Turning Stone Resort Casino: Shenendoah
3.8
55 Panelists
Like Turning Stone’s other two 18-hole tracks, the Shenendoah course is a past member of our 100 Greatest Public list, reaching as high as No. 52 in 2005-2006. The Rick Smith design offers plenty of variety, including both tree-lined parkland and open links-style holes.
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PINEHURST, N.C. AREA

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The wild 13th at Tobacco Road.

Think Pinehurst, but without actually going to Pinehurst. That’s right, there’s so much other great golf courses located in this region that you don’t need to visit one of the country’s most famed resorts. And that other golf comes at a (much) cheaper price. This past year we played the inimitable Tobacco Road (Strantz! And a perennial name on Golf Digest's 100 Greatest Public Courses list), along with Mid Pines, Mid South, Southern Pines, and Pine Needles, which has hosted the U.S. Women's Open four times. Those names may all run together, but I assure you their layouts stand out. Another nearby Strantz original, Tot Hill Farm, just went under a huge renovation as well. And if you want to throw in a round or two at Pinehurst No. 2, go ahead. Just a smorgasbord of great golf.

Tobacco Road Golf Club
Public
Tobacco Road Golf Club
Sanford, NC
Tobacco Road took every idea that Strantz had been developing to that point in time (1999) and put it all in one place, specifically an old mining site of sand and pine 25 miles north of Pinehurst. The property is the secret star—yes, there are Strantzian trademarks like boomerang-shaped par 5s, greens and fairways notched blindly behind dunes, dramatic risk/reward shots played over deep chasms and putting surfaces stretched into stringy silly putty shapes. But without the elevation changes, depressions and contrasting textures of the rugged sand barrens, this would be True Blue 2.0. It’s much more than that: a master class in decision-making and composition that sits among the top 50 on the Golf Digest America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses ranking, a placement that’s at least 20 spots too low, at least in the mind of this editor.
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Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club
Public
Mid Pines Inn & Golf Club
Southern Pines, NC
What began as a private retreat called Knollwood, funded by Roaring Twenties millionaires like James Barber, Horace Rackham and Henry Ford, is now a charming public Donald Ross design, revitalized by young first-time designer Kyle Franz in the style of Pinehurst No. 2, where Franz had worked on the restoration. Mid Pines is pure elegance and beauty. The routing is spellbinding, with holes that stretch out into corners at the property’s high points, then fall back down to intersect at junctions across the calmer interior. Franz’s 2013 work expanding greens and restoring the perimeter sandscapes has greatly enhanced one of Pinehurst’s most refined golf presentations.
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Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club
Public
Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club
Southern Pines, NC
Pine Needles used to lurk quietly in the Pinehurst background before the USGA chose to put it in their regular women’s championship rotation. It got another big boost in 2017 after Kyle Franz reworked portions of the course, putting the Pinehurst touch on the borders, cross hazards and bunkers. Though it lacks the intimacy and connectivity of its sister course, Mid Pines, with the holes wandering far afield due to a being part of a 1920s residential development, it’s grown into a big, championship worthy course (most recently hosting the 2019 Senior Women’s Open and 2022 U.S. Women’s Open) with arguably the best set of greens after No. 2.
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Mid South Club
Private
Mid South Club
Southern Pines, NC
4
55 Panelists
Mid South Club can play a lot longer than its yardage from the back tees with the significant amount of elevation present on this Arnold Palmer design. The rolling terrain and mounding provide options for the player to use the slopes to work the ball, though six green complexes require forced carries over water.
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WILLIAMSBURG, Va.

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Like Pawleys Island, another place where you can play two Mike Strantz gems (Yes, we love Mike Strantz among our group in case you can’t tell) in Royal New Kent and Stonehouse. There’s also both the Gold (Excellent) and Green (Very good) golf courses at Golden Horseshoe Golf Club as well as a pair of courses at Kingsmill Resort (above), including the River Course, a longtime LPGA venue. And it’s another very doable drive if you’re in the NYC area. Oh, and we had a great time taking in some history in Colonial Williamsburg. Just kidding, we play 36 holes a day so there’s not much time for anything else, but I’ve heard it’s a great spot!

Royal New Kent Golf Club
Public
Royal New Kent Golf Club
Providence Forge, VA
4
41 Panelists
One year after winning his first Golf Digest Best New Course design for Stonehouse, Strantz hit gold again with Royal New Kent, the 1997 Best New Upscale Public Course. Royal New Kent is just a 20-minute drive west of Stonehouse, but it couldn’t be more different. The general theme is golf in the United Kingdom, with holes like the sporty par-4 first that lays out a visible section of tumbling fairway on one line and hides a different section tucked behind a grassy dune on another. The first nine holes are a treasure, especially four through eight that gallop over a peaceful, heathlands-like sector with gorgeous ground movement. The left-right/right-left par-5 10th is another winner, but from there the real estate gets in the way and the routing becomes broken and boxed in. But it didn’t stop Strantz from pulling, twisting and hiding targets. When the land wasn’t giving him much to work with, he made his own fun. The course re-opened under new ownership in 2020 and is currently ranked 12th in state.
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Stonehouse Golf Club
Public
Stonehouse Golf Club
Toano, VA
Strantz won Golf Digest’s Best New Upscale Public Course in 1996 for his design at Stonehouse, 40 miles east of Richmond. Magazine panelists clearly scored it high, but it’s possible they did so because they didn’t know what else to make of it. Of all Strantz’s designs, this one is the least coherent because it’s the least cohesive. The holes make a wandering six-mile circuit around a heavily wooded property with significant ups and downs that feel mountainous in places. Some sections are sleek and slithering, and others are broad and cresting as if imported from another part of the world. Unfavorable economics in the 2000s contributed to the slow deterioration of Stonehouse, and the course closed temporarily in 2017 before new ownership revived it in 2019. What a relief—though a little out-of-sync overall, its eccentric architecture makes it a must-play when in the Richmond-Norfolk area.
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Golden Horseshoe Golf Club: Gold Course
Public
Golden Horseshoe Golf Club: Gold Course
Williamsburg, VA
Back in 1966, Golden Horseshoe was ranked among America's 200 Toughest Courses by Golf Digest. How times change. In 2012, we ranked The Gold Course as one of America's 50 Most Fun Public Courses. "Trent Jones in his kinder, gentler persona," we wrote. "Even the island green seventh hole is a generous target." The evolved Williamsburg track hosted the 1999 USGA Men's State Team Championship.
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Golden Horseshoe Golf Club: Green
Public
Golden Horseshoe Golf Club: Green
Williamsburg, VA
Though not ranked as high as the Gold course, the Rees Jones-designed Green course has hosted three USGA championships, including the 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. Compared to the Gold, the Green course is longer but more forgiving, with generous landing areas.
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Kingsmill Resort: The River Course
Public
Kingsmill Resort: The River Course
Williamsburg, VA
4.1
44 Panelists
Pete Dye gained notoriety in the 1960s for his unique, trend-setting take on architecture at courses like The Golf Club, Crooked Stick and Harbour Town. He became a virtual household name in the 1980s after creating sensations like The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, PGA West and Blackwolf Run, and the fame continued throughout the 90s and for the rest of his career—at The Ocean Course, Whistling Straits, The Dye Course at French Lick and numerous others—until his passing in 2020. Less heralded are his courses from the 1970s. But among them, the River Course at Kingsmill Resort continues to stand out and remains a strong expression of Dye’s early design period, more in the mode of Harbour Town than Sawgrass. The course, which hosted the PGA Tour’s Michelob Championship from 1981 through 2002 and now hosts an LPGA event, sits quietly on the land and lets the natural movements of the wooded site—rather than sharp architectural features—define the character. The final three holes circle near the James River, including the par-3 17th that plays on a bluff above the water.
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FRENCH LICK, Ind.

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OK, so I’m really cheating here because I haven’t been yet, but fingers crossed, because this is (BREAKING NEWS ALERT) the proposed venue for our 2024 trip. That’s right, major championship golf is headed to the home of Larry Bird! (Now that's a historic site we might stop to see.) And from all I’ve seen and heard, this area's golf is as good as Larry Legend's jumper in his prime. There’s a similar casino hub setup to Turning Stone at French Lick Resort with two 18-hole golf tracks right there, the Pete Dye Course (formerly a Golf Digest 100 Greatest course and currently on our Second 100 Greatest list) and Donald Ross Course, plus a nine-hole course. And the Pfau Course at Indiana University (ranked No. 5 on our list of best college courses) is nearby, along with Brickyard Crossing (another Dye gem and No. 3 on our list of most fun courses) and Sultan’s Run, both of which seem worth going to based on their names alone. Frankly, it’s amazing more people don’t talk about this area that features four courses on Golf Digest's 100 Greatest Public list, but maybe hosting an HGGA Championship will put it (more) on the map. Unfortunately, we will have to hop on a flight to get there, but I can’t wait. Is it July yet?

French Lick Resort: Pete Dye Course
Public
French Lick Resort: Pete Dye Course
French Lick, IN
Pete Dye’s mountaintop design, Golf Digest’s 2009 Best New Public winner, established that at age 80 the designer still had fresh ideas, including rumpled chipping swales, country-lane cart paths and volcano bunkers. Measuring just over 8,100 yards from the tips, Pete Dye at French Lick is not the first course over 8,000 yards to land on our rankings. That would be Runaway Brook in Massachusetts, now called the Pines Course at The International Golf Club. It was 8,040 yards when ranked in 1967. Today it’s 8,325 yards. The world’s longest is Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in China at 8,415 yards. The yardage may be a talking point, but what golfers will remember about Dye's French Lick course are the multi-mile views in all direction, the roominess of the fairways and greens that hang out over the edges of the sweeping land formations.
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French Lick Resort: Donald Ross Course
3.6
141 Panelists
If the 2009 Pete Dye course at this historic resort in southern Indiana (ranked no. 118 on America's Second 100 Greatest Courses) is an acrobat swinging trapezes through circles of flame along the site's elevated bluffs, the 1917 Donald Ross course is more of a street-level tilt-a-whirl with holes that rise, fall and roll repeatedly over a gorgous meadow property. Each nine crests over ridges and ride into hollows, rising toward well-bunkered greens that flank slightly crowned putting surfaces. This is an Old World/New World contrast, with both the Dye and Ross courses achieving what they set out to do architecturally, but in rather different ways. Depending on their mood and appreciation for allowing land movements rather than bulldozers to dictate design and direction, golfer's at French Lick often prefer the nuance and nature of the Ross course.
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The Pfau Course At Indiana University
Public
The Pfau Course At Indiana University
Bloomington, IN
College golf courses can be the most challenging of assignments for architects because of the need to accommodate the broad range of abilities that play the course day to day. On one hand the design needs to be enjoyable for students, faculty and local play, and on the other it has to have the mettle to test the skills of the best amateurs in the country. At Indiana, Smyers, a nationally competitive amateur player himself, has thought deeply about the topic. He challenges talented players, including the Hoosiers’ golf teams, with length, subtly angled drives, compressed landing areas bordered by light rough and contouring slopes around the edges of greens. But the course is also broad where handicap players drive the ball, the greens are open in front and the bunkers are shallow. Native grass roughs and groves of hardwoods add an idyllic touch.
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Brickyard Crossing Golf Course
Public
Brickyard Crossing Golf Course
Indianapolis, IN
3.9
43 Panelists
As an unapologetic Pete Dye fan, I know the most economical way to understand and appreciate Dye's genius is to simply play Brickyard Crossing, the course associated with the Indianapolis Speedway. There are four holes on the infield of the race track that provide a complete portfolio of his evolving design style. The par-3 seventh plays to a massive Seth Raynor-styled green perched some 10 feet high. The par-4 eighth is a boomerang par 4 along a lake that brings to mind the eighth at Crooked Stick, with a long rippled green a salute to Alister MacKenzie. The par-4 ninth is peppered with 10 pot bunkers in the right rough, eight more in the left. The short par-4 tenth, a dogleg wrapped around a long flat waste bunker down the left side, is a hole is full of Dye illusions. None of the four holes look or play anything like the other three, which makes it not only challenging but fun as you analyze and conquer. Plus, it's in the middle of the Indianapolis Speedway racetrack. --Ron Whitten
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